Loren Schoenberg: From Benny Goodman to The Savory Collection
“ I remember very distinctly what it was like playing the clarinet part and Benny Goodman playing the lead, and it was very exciting. ”
Schoenberg is also a jazz and classical music historian, a two-time Grammy winner for his historical essays accompanying box set releases from Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. In addition to essays published in reference books such as the Oxford Companion To Jazz, he is also the author of The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz, published by Penguin Books in 2002 with a forward by Wynton Marsalis.
Big recent news for the Museum was the discovery and acquisition of the Savory Collection, a treasure trove of live recordings of the leading figures of swing made by jazz fan and Harvard drop-out Bill Savory. The recordings were made from 1935-41 on special "long playing" sixteen inch aluminum and vinyl discs, discs that could hold thirty minutes of music a side. Savory worked for a radio transcriptions company, and was able to use the equipment after hours for his hobby: jazz. The recordings were from the radio broadcasts of afterhours jams, and the quality of many of them is excellent. Performers featured include Lester Young, Goodman, Roy Eldridge and Billie Holiday, all in artistically nurturing and relaxed environments. One stellar example is Coleman Hawkins reprising a version of his historic take on "Body And Soul" in a Times Square club in 1940a version that is twice the length of the recorded version but just as intense. Savory also recorded classical broadcasts by such immortal figures as the conductor Arturo Toscanini, which may be as revelatory as those with the jazz masters.
There are a total of 975 discs in the collection, and Schoenberg personally went to look at them in the Spring of 2010, when they turned up through the agency of Savory's son Gene. In September and November, 2010, the weekly series of classes that the Museum holds for the public, called Jazz For The Curious Listener, featured playings from the collection. Schoenberg has much to say on the significance of Savory's efforts, including the recordings' potential for influencing future musicians of all kinds. He is also keen to speak about his time with Goodman, the tremendous innovations of all the great soloists of the first decades of jazz, and the cross-fertilization between jazz and classical music.
All About Jazz: You must have discovered some great 78s.
Loren Schoenberg: I remember once I went out with my friend Phil Schaap [broadcaster at New York's WKCR] back in the '70s and found a twelve inch that was done for Philo with Lester Young, Nat "King" Cole and Red Callender, and at this time it was only available on LP in very bad sound quality. (Well), not bad sound quality but not good sound quality. And I found this lovely 78 twelve inch album. It said ""Lester Young"it couldn't say Nat Cole 'cause I guess he was under contract to another company, but it was the Lester Young Trio. This is not the session with Buddy Rich in '45. This was the trio session with Red Callender in '42. So we brought them home, and then sat on them! I sat on the records by mistake. So that's my 78 collecting story. I found another copy later.
AAJ: As a child in New Jersey, you went to a lot of local venues, where you met Teddy Wilson and through him, in due course, Benny Goodman.
LS: Yes. when I was about 13, 14 Teddy Wilson was playing in a restaurant near where I lived. And I just couldn't believe that this was the same guy who had been playing with Benny Goodman.
AAJ: What was the venue?
LS: It was called the Colonial Post, in Hackensack, New Jersey. It was a very small little restaurant in Hackensack and Teddy Wilson was playing there on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, weekend afternoons, at 5 to 8 (p.m.), or something like that. I said, "This can't be the guy who I have on these records with Benny Goodman." So I asked my parents to take me. And they did, and it was him.
AAJ: Were there any other places you went to?
LS: Yes, we went to a place called The Cookery in New York, which was owned by Barney Josephson. Barney Josephson is the same guy who had the Cafe Society uptown and downtown in the '40s. So Teddy played at The Cookery, and because one night [that] he was playing at the CookeryI went there with my parentshe was [also] playing that [same] night with Benny Goodman, that's how I went to hear Benny Goodman for the very first time, and I met Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa.
AAJ: When was that?
LS: That was 1972. The Cookery was at [East] 9th Street and University Place [in Greenwich Village]. It was right near where the Knickerbocker is.
LS: Teddy had a tuxedo on and my parents said, "Wow, you're wearing a tux tonight," 'cause usually he didn't wear a tuxedo. He would wear a kind of a brown suit. And so he said, "Yes, I'm playing..." (and he explained that) the National Urban League was giving a humanitarian award that night to Lionel Hampton at the Waldorf. They had the original Benny Goodman Quartet with Slam Stewartor maybe George Duvivierand Illinois Jacquet added. And I asked if I could go and he said "Yeah" so I tagged along, and that's when I shook hands with Benny Goodman for the first time.
AAJ: That must have been pretty amazing. How were you so lucky? Did Benny Goodman remember you when you met again?
LS: "Well, I don't think he had that many teenage fans. So he told me I could come up. I called his office to ask if I could have an autographed picture. So I came in and got the picture, and then I met him at the New York Jazz Museum shortly thereafter because they did an exhibit on Benny Goodman and I was a volunteer there. And I got a picture of me and him and it was actually in the local newspaper. So that was the beginning.
AAJ: This was the New York Jazz Museum that was downtown in the '70s.
LS: The Jazz Museum was begun in 1972, by a guy named Jack Bradley. He was a very close friend of Louis Armstrong's. He was like an adopted son. And he, in conjunction with Howard Fischer, started this museum on West 55th Street.
AAJ: Later, there was a Count Basie exhibit there, where Basie played and Charles Mingus sat in on bass.
LS: I recorded that on my little cassette machine. I gave the tape to Phil Schaap. I guess he still has it. [Memo to Mr Schaap: play it!].
AAJ: 78 rpm records can sometimes sound pretty good, relative to LP and digital versions of the same track. Is that something you've noticed?
LS: Absolutely. A mint copy 78 played on [good equipment] will sound better than any transfer, but I think that's basically a technological issue. I don't think that anything will sound better than the source material, if it's played in its optimum way, [with its] optimum technology. You can't sound better than it because that's the (original]. How can anything sound better than a 78?
AAJ: They're large, they have big grooves.
LS: There's a lot of information.
AAJ:: You have recently been holding sessions for the public, playing selections from the historic Savory Collection.
LS: We had [Bill Savory's] son, we had the engineer, and we were talking about exactly what you're talking about. What it still comes down to is, no technology will ever sound better than the source. It can't. Back in the '30s most people at home did not have good equipment. So back in the '30s, a lot of people didn't hear the stuff sound great because their record players weren't great, their speakers weren't great, all that kind of stuff. But at the studio where they recorded this music, [when] they were hearing it back it sounded incredible.
AAJ: To lead a big band is a lot of peoples' dream. How did you get to put that together?
LS: I went to New York in 1976 and I was playing with a lot of mediocre big bands. That was the only place that I could hear big band music. I became dissatisfied because the bands weren't that good and even the charts we were playing were not the originals. They were just copies, so I had this feeling that I really wanted... it's like, if you wanted to hear a Brahms symphony but all you were hearing was a cheesy second-rate version of it, you 'd say 'Man, let's put an orchestra together, get the original symphony, and play it.' Well, it was like that. I wanted to do that with Goodman and Basie and Ellington.
So I put a band together of my friends, just a rehearsal band, and started working and then I started to attract really good musicians to play in it. So once I had Mel Lewis, once I had Harold Ashby, Rolf Ericson, or Johnny Carisi or whoever was in the band, more people wanted to play in it, and it eventually turned into an actual band that was working. Not a lot, but we were working. John Hammond [the famous A&R executive who discovered Basie, Goodman and Bob Dylan] was interested, and [others], people who had some influence. And the next thing you knew, we started doing the Newport Jazz Festival. Then we made a record and Benny heard the record. I was working for him at that time in another capacity and that's how it happened. And that's how we became the last Benny Goodman big band.
Discs from the Savory Collection
AAJ: When you were beginning with your big band, did you have any trouble finding places to play?
LS: Sure we did. Of course we did. We played a noon-time gig at a place called The Red Blazer, which was on 88th and Third Avenue. And I paid the band. I don't remember what it was, but I paid them something. And we worked our way up from there.
AAJ: When did you release your first record?
LS: 1984. That was my first big band record.
AAJ: What was the personnel?
LS: "Well it was mostly young guys. It was all my peers, like Howard Alden, Ken Peplowski, Matt Finders and Doug Lawrence and all these good players, but maybe one third of the band or one quarter of the band were the old time great guys, the veterans, like Danny Bank, Mel Lewis or Eddie Bert.
AAJ: Were there any members of The Harlem Jazz And Blues Band? (The band was comprised of original Basie alumni and others from the same era, such as Eddie Durham and Eddie Barefield).
LS: No. That was an older generation, a slightly older generation. They were some people I had worked with. I had worked with Jo Jones and Roy Eldridge and all those people, but they were like grandfathers. I would play in their band or sit in or both, but this was a different generation. My parents' generation was the generation that was my band. That was the grandparents' generation.
AAJ: I read you also played sax with Eddie Durham [the '30s Basie arranger, trombonist and inventor of the electric guitar].
LS: Yes, I played with them all. I played with Al Casey and Sammy Price and Harold Ashby and Russell Procope and Paul Quinichette and Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, all of those.
AAJ: This is the late seventies?
LS: This is the late seventies and the early eighties.
AAJ: A lot of these guys were in their own bands?
LS: Yes, a lot of them worked at The West End. I lived around the corner from The West End. [The West End was at Broadway and 114th Street]. And I became the all purpose sub, 'cause I played saxophone and piano. So whenever they needed anybody, you know [it was] "Call Loren," and I ended up working in the band.
AAJ: What was your book for your own big band?
LS: Basically it was arrangements I got from Benny Goodman, and then Buck Clayton and Benny Carter started giving me music. They would give me some charts. So the book was largely things from the Goodman library and then augmented by Benny Carter and Johnny Carisi and people I knew who had just come. They wanted to hear their stuff played too. At that time there were no jazz repertory bands so there was probably nobody playing the stuff, so I think they were actually happy to have it played.
AAJ: When did Benny Goodman take over your band?
AAJ: Was it for the one gig?
LS: Originally it was just for one gig, for a public television show called Let's Dance, and he needed a band. It was proposed to him that Dick Hyman put together a band of all the old-timers and he didn't want to do that. So he said, "No." And then I gave him a copy of my record and we were swimming one day at his house up in Stamford and in the middle of the swimming thing he just said "Oh, by the way, I think I'm going to use your band on the TV show." Oh my God, I was so excited. So we did a concert in New Jersey in Waterloo Village for the New Jersey Jazz Society in the Fall of '84, because Teddy Wilson played. And then we did the TV show in '85 and then he took the band over. The band actually started really working. And within a few months I was gone.
[Goodman had a reputation for replacing musicians en masse. One currently working drummer claims to have been fired three times by Goodman, the Donald Trump of jazz, in the '60s. And trumpeter Doc Cheatham said in an interview that once Goodman fired the whole band that he (Cheatham) was in, except for him. And so it was that soon Schoenberg left too, from his band. All in the name of art, we assume.]
AAJ: Did he tour with the big band?
LS: I wouldn't say "toured," but he was doing work and he was getting a week, a night here and a night there. He was starting a real schedule for the band. And he had been sick that time and he was told to cool it and he wouldn't, and I think he died exactly like he wanted to die.
LS: Yes, leading a big band and playing. That's exactly right. He died on the 13th of June, '86, Friday the thirteenth.
AAJ: Talking about numbers that he performed with the band, did he do a number like say "Bach Goes to Town," the one with five clarinets?
LS: The only thing we did with a lot of clarinets that I remember was "At The Darktown Strutters' Ball." Not the Mel Powell arrangement but the earlier Spud Murphy arrangement, which I love, and it has a passage with five clarinets at the end and I remember very distinctlywe never played it in public I don't think, but we rehearsed itand I remember what it was like playing the clarinet part and Benny playing the lead, and it was very exciting.
AAJ: Were they all Bb clarinets?
AAJ: He also toured or played in England and in Europe in the eighties. Was that with the band?
LS: Not with the big band. I think it was with bands that I put together because I was his manager at that time and he would do tours. (He did) one very interesting broadcast with the BBC in 1982 with Svend Asmussen. I don't know if it's ever been issued commercially, but it was recorded by the BBC and it's wonderful. I've heard it.
AAJ: Did he do post swing-era numbers with the band?
LS: No. By the time he took over my band, he was really only interested in doing all the Fletcher Henderson arrangements. He really wasn't even doing any of the Eddie Sauter arrangements.
AAJ: What were you doing at this time, after no longer playing with the big band?
LS: By that time I was a full time musician so I was either with my band or working with Benny Carter, or working with a jazz orchestra, recording, doing touring, so yeah, my whole life was with the saxophone, conducting bands on occasion, and guest conducting. I hadn't started teaching yet. Teaching came a little bit later.
AAJ: Conducting jazz orchestras?
LS: Yes, jazz orchestras in Venezuela or in Germany, loads of places. I was a guest conductor for a week or a day, or two weeks.
AAJ: You conducted a concert in Germany that included music of Duke Ellington.
LS: That was a big band. It's called the West Deutsche Rundfunk, the WDR Jazz Orchestra. One of the concerts, the Paul Whiteman tribute, was with an actual orchestra. I conducted the "Rhapsody In Blue." It was mostly big bands.
AAJ: Were you arranging also?
LS: Not too much arranging. Probably the most arrangements I wrote was when I was Bobby Short's musical director for ten years, and then I wrote some. I'm not a great arranger but I know great arrangers. So I'm the kind of person who has very limited talent but I was lucky enough to focus on exactly what I did well, and things I didn't do so well I let other people do.
AAJ: It has been said that you're a "natural historian."
LS: Well I guess I am. I'm a writer, I think. I've written a lot.
AAJ: How did the West 55th Street New York Jazz Museum come to an end? [It ended in 1977].
LS: It didn't have any management, and it was the wrong time and the wrong place.
AAJ: You were appointed Executive Director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem in 2001. Did you see that coming?
LS: No. I had nothing to do with it. It was the conception of a man named Leonard Garment. He had the idea for the Jazz Museum and they were having trouble bringing it off and it wasn't happening. They started and stopped and then after it stopped, they got somebody from Congress, they got a million dollar appropriation from Congress. So there was some money, but then there was no institution, and that's when I took over."
AAJ: The Savory Collection is a tremendous find. Is it likely to be released in any way?
LS: We hope so. We're talking with major record labels right now trying to work out a way to issue it.
AAJ: At the public presentations recently, did you play the actual discs or copies of them?
LS: Here are some of the discs [indicates discs on the table]. We played transfers of the discs. That was all done by Doug Pomeroy, who's the transfer engineer.
AAJ: How would the rights situation work?
LS: I don't know. That's what we're exploring.
AAJ: The Museum has a lot of jazz books in the front area.
LS: That's one hundredth of what we have. We have a huge collection of books, recordings, magazines. It's in storage right now until we actually build the museum. [The Museum is hoping to move to large specially-renovated premises on 125th Street]. We have a tremendous collection, all the Metronomes, all the Downbeats, thousands of jazz books, thousands of 78s, memorabilia, Ralph Ellison's collection of things. Tons of stuff."
AAJ: How is the progress of the proposed move of the Museum to bigger premises going?
LS: There's a building across the street from the Apollo Theater. It's called the Mark 125. We were designated by the city to be the cultural organization in Mark 125. Right now, the city is finding a developer to build the building, and once they do that then we will hopefully raise the twenty million dollars we have to raise.
AAJ: There are also some historic photos of musicians on the walls in the front area.
LS: Those come from a book called Ghosts Of Harlem. The book is for sale and the book is written by one of my board members, [photographer] Hank O'Neil. In the seventies and eighties he took pictures of these great musicians, and that's what that is.
AAJ: I'm all for spreading knowledge about "proper" music so that people write good musicgood input and good output. Do you have any general plans for, or ideas on, the best methods to do that?
LS: Here's how you do it. At all the Bill Savory events we had this month, I hired young musicians to play along with the records while they were playing, and then to go off on their own. So I see the Bill Savory collection as (being as) relevant to the future as it is to the past. We're going to use these discs and use these recordings to inspire dancers, painters, musicians, athletes, surgeons, anybody. That's the whole idea of the Savory Collection.
AAJ: How are you publicizing it?
LS: Tonight we' ll be on the BBC World News and BBC America, and CBS News is running something and you're doing your piece. Just any and all, just keep it going.
AAJ: Eric Clapton was once interviewed on a BBC radio show and he described how, when he was a teenager buying blues records, the record store owner said to him, "I'll only sell them to you if you also buy a jazz record at the same time!" So I had the idea that when someone buys a rap record or a chart record they should be given a free jazz CD at the same time.
LS: That is a brilliant idea. I'm going to steal that [laughs]. I had never thought of that and that might even be a way for us when we do the Savory Collection. It'll be tied to something contemporary. So, in other words, if somebody likes Little Wayne or Naz or Alicia Keys or whomever the hell it isJustin Bieber, whatever his [name is]if they like that, you introduce both to both. Because we're not coming from the perspective that jazz is better than anything else, which is unfortunately the position of too many people, that somehow jazz is superior. No, I'm not saying that jazz is superior.
AAJ: You have won two Grammies for album essay notes. How do you write a good sleeve-note?
LS: You call them sleeve-notes, that's what they're called. But they're really... without sounding too pompous, one of my favorite writers is [classical music critic] Donald Francis Tovey, and I love Tovey's writing because Tovey wrote about classical music in a way that laymen could read and a serious musician could read the same piece and find something in it. So my goal has always been to try and imitateI never did it [laughs]but to try and write about it in a way that would satisfy me as a musician, and that my nephew or my niece could read.
AAJ: Is there a particular example of Tovey's writing you can mention?
LS: Well, his writing about the Brahms symphonies is how I met him, because I'm a Brahms nut. Because I was getting into that, and I started teaching it at the places I was teaching when I was teaching jazz. I was starting to incorporate it to make sure that jazz students would have a month of Brahms' Fourth, just so that they would understand it. In the summer program I do with Christian McBride [McBride was appointed a Co-Director of the Museum in 2005] in Aspen, we have great young jazz musicians and I take them through the Goldberg Variations [of JS Bach]. And again, Tovey on the Goldberg Variations is incredible. But we only do it in the context of its relationship to jazz music.
So, in other words, I always tell my students there are three things: "OK, we're talking about the Goldberg Variations, but you have to be able to understand what the relationship is between jazz and you here in 2010, and if at any moment you don't understand those two things just ask me and I'll try to answer that question. So, in other words, we never want to get into a topic or a musical analysis that's so abstruse or so opaque or far out, that they say "What the hell are we talking about this for? This is a jazz discussion. This is a jazz class. You're teaching me about jazz. Why are we talking about Bach?" And then I'll try and answer. I'll say, "Because, there are only so many notes, there are only so many chords, and why try and re-invent the wheel?"
AAJ: What other classical composers do you like a lot?
LS: Brahms is my particular fascination. I love all different kinds of things. But for me it's Brahms, and then there are other things I compare to him and enjoy. So I could talk about Arnold Schoenberg, Beethoven, Messaien. My particular favorite is Brahms and everything comes out of that.
AAJ: What was your input on the Ken Burns Jazz history series?
LS: I was one of the advisors. He had about ten advisors and I was one of them.
AAJ: In your sleeve notes, you focus on the era of the '20s through to bebop. Do you think that people give too much attention to the '50s on?
LS: Yes, very good question. What I've encountered with most musicians and maybe the public is that they think of anything before Charlie Parker as kind of Neanderthal music in a certain sense, or somehow simple or somehow something that has to be a little condescended to a little bit like old grandpa, and my point is that let's listen to Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Louis Armstrong. What has ever surpassed that in terms of any quality that you want to talk about as being "modern," whatever the word "modern" means? So yes, that's my passion, so I'll put [this as] a positive expression of what I love about that, and let you draw your own conclusions about it.
AAJ: You stopped leading bands after the '80s. Was there any lessening in work after the stock crash in 1987?
LS: I don't think so. My life went on and leading a big band didn't become the number one thing for me anymore. It's an expensive habit!
Barbara Lea W/the Loren Schoenberg Big Band, Black Butterfly (THPOPS, 2006)
Loren Schoenberg And His Jazz Orchestra, Out Of This World (TCB Records, 1999)
Ken Peplowski, Good Reed (Concord Records, 1997)
Loren Schoenberg Jazz Orchestra, Manhattan Work Song (Jazz Heritage, 1992)
Loren Schoenberg Jazz Orchestra, Just A-Settin' And A-Rockin' (Musicmasters, 1990)
The Loren Schoenberg Quartet, Solid Ground (Musicmasters, 1988)
Loren Schoenberg Jazz Orchestra, Time Waits For Noone (Musicmasters, 1987)
Loren Schoenberg Jazz Orchestra, That's The Way It Goes (Musicmasters, 1984)
Page 1: Courtesy of livelyarts @ flickr
Page 2: Courtesy of Loren Schoenberg
Pages 3, 4: Simon Jay Harper
Page 6: Courtesy of Lynn Redmile